Privacy Is About Controlling Information About Yourself

from the doublespeak-is-doubleplusungood dept

As Congress debates whether to expand the executive branch's eavesdropping powers and immunize the telecom industry for illegally sharing customer information with the government, a senior Bush administration official, Donald Kerr, says that we need a new definition of privacy. He says the old definition revolved around a right to anonymity, and that in our increasingly wired world anonymity is becoming increasingly difficult. Therefore, he said, we should accept a new definition of privacy in which we just accept that "government and businesses" have access to private data on us, and we focus on holding those institutions accountable for not misusing it. But as my colleague Jim Harper points out privacy has never meant anonymity. Rather, privacy is about having control over what information you divulge, and to whom. It's true, as Kerr notes, that Google and Facebook have a lot of private information about us. But the important point is that they only have the information that we have voluntarily chosen to give them. If those companies violate our trust, we can switch to Yahoo, MySpace, or numerous other search engines and social networking sites that will be more respectful of our data. Or we can prevent our information from being collected in the first place, for example by using software to block Google's web cookies or by not signing up for Facebook at all. The government is different. You don't know when you're being spied on, what information is being collected, and what's being done with it, and you certainly don't have the option to opt out if it makes you uncomfortable. That's why there needs to be much stricter regulation of government data-collection than information collected by the private sector.Kerr argues that it's sufficient that government officials are subject to stiff fines and even jail time for misusing peoples' private information. Yet this is the same administration pushing to exempt AT&T and Verizon from liability for violating the privacy laws already on the books. And this spring, the Inspector General found that the FBI had issued hundreds of "improper" (read: "illegal") letters demanding private customer data without a warrant. As far as I know, no one at the FBI has been indicted for these breaches of the law. So if the administration is breaking the laws already on the books without facing any penalties, what reason is there to think that the threat of criminal penalties will be sufficient to make future administrations behave themselves? Moreover, as Julian pointed out last week, if the eavesdropping program is kept secret from its targets, and if telecom companies are also given immunity, there will be no one to object if the government starts misusing your data. The only way to ensure the law is followed is by requiring that an impartial judge review each wiretapping request before it begins.

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Comments on “Privacy Is About Controlling Information About Yourself”

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* Miss Universe (user link) says:


FBI had issued hundreds of “improper” (read: “illegal”) letters demanding private customer data without a warrant. As far as I know, no one at the FBI has been indicted for these breaches of the law

Are there legal logistics that would hinder either the DA or the Attorney General from prosecuting the FBI?

Or could this spell political death?

Anonymous Coward says:

I regard ANYTHING that I transmit via the Internet to be public domain. I don’t send anything to anyone, either via websites or any kind or email, that I would have a problem with anyone else on the planet knowing about.

If you don’t want people to know stuff about you, don’t put it out there. Obviously you can’t stop government agencies finding out things if they really want to but why make it easy for them, and anyone else, by volunteering stuff.

If you’re worried about somebody knowing all your Facebook, (or any other collective site), details, don’t put them there, better still, don’t sign up.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Anonymous Coward says:

What gives #1, #3, #4 and #5 the mistaken idea that this is just a matter of the internet?

I guess if you never read the papers or watch TV, you don’t realize what’s happening in the world.

Turn off the computer – get out of your jammies and fuzzy slippers and get dressed, then go (god forbid) outside. Take a few breaths of fresh air – it may make you sneeze but won’t kill you outright – buy and read a newspaper. USA Today doesn’t count, and for TV news, Fox doesn’t either.

Max Powers at (user link) says:

Wake up Americans

I too am very concerned with what this administration thinks is fair game with regards to our personal information and privacy. To try and prevent any intrusion as best as I can, everything is wireless is my life.

My drivers license, credit cards, and basically everything I have in my wallet leads to a mailbox rental place that has no idea where I actually live. Even my website leads to a different name and obviously a different location.

Am I paranoid of the government spying on it’s citizens. YES! Am I on America’s Most Wanted? NO! Is my system perfect? No, as I know there are tracking devices that can locate me but I’m not going to make it any easier for Big Brother to snoop where it doesn’t belong.

If the majority of citizens believes this only has to do with protecting our country from terrorists, we are in deep trouble.

Yea, we need a new definition of privacy, just not the one Donald Kerr suggests.

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